Calling the existence of sweatshops a moral issue, Labor Secretary Robert Reich introduced 36 religious groups Tuesday that have volunteered to help combat the problem.
“The power of the pulpit is an extraordinary power,” Reich said in introducing the leaders of the national and local organizations whose memberships number in the millions. “The additional power of the pulpit will have a dramatic and sustained effect.”
The organizations include Baptist, Episcopal and United Methodist groups, the U.S. Catholic Conference and various Jewish organizations such as B’nai B’rith, the oldest with 350,000 members in 56 countries.
The organizations will carry the anti-sweatshop message to their congregations by speaking out from the pulpit, mobilizing communities and youth groups and contacting local retailers.
Reich acknowledged the department’s 800 inspectors alone cannot protect the rights of 110 million workers in 6.5 million workplaces.
“While the Department of Labor is the enforcer of our nation’s labor laws, these religious leaders - and their congregations - are the reinforcers,” he told the news conference.
Noting the approach of the holiday season, Reich said individual shoppers must make retailers and manufacturers aware of their concerns so that they do not do business with garment shops that do not adhere to government wage and hour laws.
“The power of the individual consumer can never be overestimated,” Reich said. “Companies will respond.”
The National Retail Federation said in a statement that its members “are taking proactive and responsible steps … to underscore the importance of full compliance by their suppliers with labor laws and to hold their suppliers accountable when those laws are not upheld.”
“While there is no one-size-fits-all formula that all retailers follow, more than 250 retail companies, including most of the nation’s largest firms, have pledged their commitment to fair working conditions in the production of their goods,” it added.
The department has been waging a public awareness and enforcement campaign against the resurgence of sweatshops since a raid on a suburban Los Angeles operation that discovered 72 garment workers working in virtual slavery for as little as 70 cents an hour.